First Person

Arab Spring Inspires Palestinian Protesters

New impetus given to non-violent campaign against Israeli occupation.
  • West Bank Palestinians protest against Israel’s separation wall. (Photo: Ian McKellar/Flickr)

Right from the beginning of the Arab Spring, Palestinians have felt excited about what has being going on in the region. There were celebrations in the street when Tunisia’s Ben Ali fell; and even more when Egypt’s Mubarak was toppled because people here see him as such a good friend to Israel.

At the same time, there is jealousy; even though our major problem is not the Palestinian Authority or even Hamas, it is the occupation. We say that we were the first to launch a popular resistance movement - with the first intifada, in 1987 – but our situation has not moved on much since then.

But the Arab Spring has nonetheless had an effect here. We have become more mobilised, for instance in our calls for unity between Fatah and Hamas. People set up protest tents in Bethlehem and Ramallah and despite the efforts by Hamas and the PA to stop us demonstrating, people still came out on the streets.

Our leaders are worried that the same could happen to them as elsewhere in the Arab world. Last week, an agreement was finally signed between them in Cairo. It is notable that President Abbas saluted the Palestinian demonstrators that pushed the two parties to come together.

And the other effect of the Arab Spring is that it has given a strong impetus to those calling for non-violent resistance in the territories. It has energised and inspired us to direct our resources at the occupation, and most Palestinians now agree that the violence used in the second intifada was not helpful to our cause.

There are tens of places in the West Bank where such peaceful protests are already taking place – like Bilin and Nebi Saleh –and we need to bring more people there and expand to more locations. If there are 100 protesters in each place and 200 Israeli soldiers called in to monitor them every time – then the occupation becomes unsustainable. The protests are against the wall, and against settlement-building, but are all fundamentally against the occupation.

There are two different movements that are calling for protests on May 15. The first is organised by the Palestinian diaspora and calls for a march outside Israel and the territories, making the refugees issue their focal point. The second is in the West Bank and Gaza.

The two movements are not connected and to my knowledge there is almost no coordination or communication between them. In the territories, the goal is to mobilise and call for a new “white” intifada, a non-violent one. Palestinians citizens of Israel will join in, I hope, and it will be peaceful. Although there have been some voices calling for violence, we need to avoid this.

Jewish-Israeli activists should be apart of this too. They already are in some ongoing protests and this strengthens us and means there are fewer casualties, because the Israeli army uses less deadly force when Jewish-Israeli activists are involved in protests.

But we need more to join us – not that many are yet involved. It has been proven that peaceful methods in resisting the occupation will energise more Jewish-Israeli activists to join.

Ironically, the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas might hurt the idea of a new and peaceful uprising. Now, their strategy is to focus on international diplomacy and to lobby for the recognition of a Palestinian state by the United Nations this September. They fear popular movements may take attention away from their own efforts.

However, it is important that both the grassroots movement and the political actors coordinate with each other. A mass peaceful movement in Palestine could be very helpful to the politicians in pursuing a diplomatic solution.

There is no central leadership for this movement, which is both a positive and a negative. And the rebirth of the Palestinian peace movement is in its infancy and therefore not very organised which makes it hard to tell what the result will be. There might be a million people out on the streets on May 15; there might be 5,000. But the call is out there.

Aziz Abu Sarah is a writer and the Jerusalem-based executive director of the centre for world religions, diplomacy and conflict resolution at George Mason university. 


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